Saturday, February 28, 2009

Art = Heritage?

BBC has an interesting article up about the sale of the Yves Saint Laurent estate, specifically two bronze statues that Christie's [at the time of the article] would be auctioning.
The statues apparently were once located in the Summer Palace in Beijing that was burnt during the second Opium war in the 1800's. The statues were taken and eventually ended up in Yves Saint Laurent's collection.
China believes that rather than be auctioned off, the statues should be returned to China as a form of heritage reparation.
The Chinese heritage administration said the auction would bring repercussions as it had "harmed the cultural rights and national feeling of the Chinese people".
"This will have a serious impact on its development in China," it said in the statement to the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party.

There was a follow-up piece on with responses and analysis of the reactions to the auction which sold the two statues for approx. US$34 million.
The sale of the lost treasures has whipped up nationalistic passion among Chinese in and outside China.
Luo Zhewen, chairman of the Chinese Heritage Society said, "The biggest value of the bronze heads is that they are evidence of the crime committed by imperialists who invaded China. The despicable part the auction is not that it has breached international agreements, but that it is trading criminal evidence for a massive profit."
Movie star Jackie Chan agrees.
"It has broken the hearts of the 1.3 billion people of China," he said. "All these national treasures should be returned to their home countries. In future, these fountainheads will not belong to anybody and they should all be returned to the Summer Palace."

The furor over these items brought to mind David Lowenthal's piece on cultural heritage title "Heritage Wars"
Chauvinism underpins heritage rapine. The Rosetta Stone entered the British Museum 'honourably acquired by the fortune of war'; Napoleon looted all Europe and North Africa to prove France the Roman Empire's rightful heir; fin-de-si├Ęcle Americans threatened to buy up all England. Jingoist rivalry still foments plunder and inhibits global sharing. National and local self-esteem are sacred writ in international protocols. Equating heritage with identity justifies every group's claim to the bones, the belongings, the riddles, and the refuse of every forebear back into the mists of time. All that stands in the way of everyone's reunion with all their ancestral things is its utter impossibility.
It is impossible because it flies in the face of historical reality. There are no well-attested, long-enduring, pure, unchanged social or cultural entities. Every people are hybrid, every legacy multiple, every society heterogeneous, every tradition as much recent as ancient. All cultures are compages stemming from manifold antecedents. The farther back in time the more mixed is every ancestry. Multiple entitlements vitiate demands based on prior existence, occupance, use and discovery.

The CNN articles describes at the end of it two views on the auction within China.
A debate is raging in China's mainstream media and cyberspace over China's lost treasures.
"We don't have to be so angry over losing historical relics," wrote a person in "China has countless historical pieces lost overseas. We have to build many museums if we get all of them back. If we put them in foreign museums, people still can see China's ancient civilization and understand the history of crimes committed by foreign countries."
Others were more introspective.
"If the Red Guards smashed the Rabbit Head in the Old Summer Palace, whom will you cry to?" asks one person posting in the People's Daily Forum. "We Chinese have destroyed our own things more than the invaders, and the destruction is more extensive, lasting, and thorough."
Tao Duanfang, an international affairs commentator in Beijing, said that, though the bronze sculptures were national treasures, "what are really valuable are not these 'dead relics,' but China's economic progress, social stability and systemic progress."

Cultural heritage can be a very touchy subject which can have significant PD implications. While a lot of people may never hear about or relate to PD efforts outside their country, cultural artifacts are something they can identify with and they are also an issue which is fought out in the media providing wider access to the general populace.
The BBC and CNN articles mention that not only is Christie's coming under attack in China, but France itself as well.
How do you see cultural heritage issues? Do you think they are related to PD?


  1. Very interesting post Morgan. This reminds me of another art conflict over the work of Gustav Klimt (one of my fave painters). The legal battle over ownership of six of his paintings even involved the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Here's the story: Klimt painted several paintings of Adele Bloch Bauer, a Jewish art collector in Austria, in the early 1900s. Her family fled Austria and the Nazi's took the paintings. The works were later appropriated by the Austrian National Gallery. Maria Altman (who lives in LA), Bauer's heir, sued the Austrian government and the gallery in 2004. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she could sue Austria for the return of the paintings (under a clause in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act). According to one NYT article, "The tale of the Klimt paintings is similar to many claims over looted Nazi art in the last two decades, with the notable difference that these canvases are monuments of 20th-century Austrian culture, and an integral part of the nation's artistic patrimony."

    In 2006, one of the paintings was purchased for the Neue Galerie in NYC for $135 million, the highest amount ever paid for a work of art.

    This reflects the sense of patriotism and cultural heritage central in the situation you mentioned with YSL's Chinese sculptures. The retribution of cultural artifacts seems like quite a theme in PD relations. The challenge, though, is finding a brightline. Should each country return artifacts taken from other societies? Who should they be returned to? The artist's family? The buyer's family? The buyer's country?

    Despite the complexities, this is a fascinating topic that should be discussed in the context of PD.

  2. [update] The BBC has an article up this morning about the winning bidder. Apparently, he has told Christie's that he bid as a patriotic action and that does not have the money to pay.

    ~Cai Mingchao, who has identified himself as the bidder, is an adviser to China's National Treasures Fund, which seeks to retrieve looted treasures.

    He said his decision to bid for the bronzes had been a "patriotic" act.

    "What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid," Mr Cai told a news conference.

    "I believe that any Chinese person would stand up at this time... I am making an effort to fulfil my own responsibilities," he said in a statement released by the fund.

    "But I must stress that I do not have the money to pay for this," he said. ~